The tiny boulevard gardens of East Vancouver are a lesson in reclaiming urban space

Saba Farmand leads a tour of East Vancouver’s Boulevard Gardens on April 22, Earth Day.Photography by Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

Saba Farmand never intended to be a tour guide.

A landscape architect and arborist, he can be a little nerdy when it comes to urban design and streetscapes. When he moved to the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of East Vancouver five years ago, he was fascinated by the community’s boulevard gardens, so he started photographing them. He created an Instagram account, @eastvan_blvd_gardens, to showcase the colorful and creative displays.

“I just love walking around the neighborhood and I’ve noticed how many great boulevard gardens there are in the area and how they dance with the surrounding streetscape,” says Mr. Farmand.

Boulevard gardens are what some people plant in the tiny strips of land between the sidewalk and the street. Ordinary residents, confronted with these empty spaces in front of their houses and in commercial areas, adopt them to plant flower gardens or grow vegetables. Some are simple flower beds or neat rows of peas. Others are elaborate works of vibrant street art combining flowers, shrubs and trees. Quite a few are homes for gnomes.

In a city like Vancouver, where land prices are skyrocketing, the gardens offer ordinary citizens a way to reclaim some ownership and pride in their neighborhood and satisfy a need to tend land.

“Public gardens … often don’t have the same personality as many boulevard gardens,” says Mr. Farmand.

Tulips near Windsor Street and East 28th Avenue.

As his enthusiasm for these tiny gardens grew, so did his following. Last July, a local environmental non-profit asked him to host a tour of the community. He agreed as long as the money raised went to Mount Pleasant Neighborhood House, a group that has recently supported immigrants and refugees.

It was a one-off event, but Mr. Farmand still does the tours himself, promoting them on his Instagram account and donating the proceeds. The tours become a regular part of the neighborhood and provide Mr. Farmand with a regular opportunity to share his many thoughts on his favorite subject.

“Boulevard gardens help increase the sustainability of a community,” he says. And he’s not just talking about the environmental benefits, like providing flowers for pollinators and habitats for birds. It refers to the social and economic sustainability of neighborhoods.

“When you’re gardening, you’re more likely to meet a neighbor and talk to them,” he says, adding that he notes that people in neighborhoods with more boulevard gardens tend to be friendlier.

A boulevard garden surrounds a tree near Prince Albert Street and East 20th Avenue.

Close to Glen Drive and East 11th Avenue.

Near Fraser Street and East 54th Avenue.

This garden has tiny gnome houses on Comox Street in Vancouver’s West End.

An old tire and free library near East 37th Avenue and Ridgeway Street in East Vancouver.

Hedges and grasses under a moody sky near Prince Albert and East 23rd in East Vancouver.

One fascinating fact about these small gardens, Mr. Farmand says, is that most people assume they’re illegal. Many are surprised the City of Vancouver actually encourages this, he says, as long as gardeners follow published guidelines.

Hayden Kremer, the green thumb behind one of Mr. Farmand’s favorite roadside gardens, says when he started he thought he was probably breaking the rules. “I was completely in the dark that this was okay.” Mr. Kremer has come to appreciate the community-building elements of gardens like his. His neighbors want to create their own boulevard garden next spring.

But not every city allows boulevard gardening. For example, some municipalities in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland are still working to develop their own policies to allow this, says Mr. Farmand.

Boulevard gardeners Hayden Kremer and Megan Reiter.

Gardening in public spaces can also be associated with challenges. Some have shared tales of tomatoes mysteriously disappearing, he says. And two years ago – just months after the COVID-19 pandemic began – there was a spate of tree and flower thefts from residential gardens in East Vancouver, including one case in which the perpetrator was caught on camera making a Japanese maple ripped right out of someone’s front yard.

But Megan Reiter, one of the gardeners whose property is part of Mr. Farmand’s tour, says thefts are rare. “With tulips, for example, if I have particularly exotic ones, they sometimes disappear,” she says.

As the popularity of Mr. Farmand’s tour grows, he hopes to eventually expand beyond East Vancouver. While he has so far focused on photographing the gardens himself, he plans to start a series portraying the gardeners behind them and maybe one day write a book. In the meantime he is planning more hiking tours over the summer and will continue to take care of them its thriving Instagram community.

Mr. Farmand continues his tour.

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